The other day I started a rant, i mean blog, on custom textbooks. If you didn’t read part 1, here it is. As we look forward we pick up speaking about custom and its growth. Please enjoy.
The custom model is not new and actual numbers are difficult to determine as nobody produces a list of all the custom ISBN numbers and the related main editions (the unmodified text and original ISBN). Thus, it is nearly impossible for any third party to index all the ISBNs that are associated with the main core text, which is actually kind of scary. I mean, publishers and bookstores are terrified of so-called pirated editions yet they are creating something that isn’t so very different in that it’s a variation of an original for which there are repercussions. Sure, the copyright is legit, but a custom edition has about as much buyback value as a pirated scanned PDF of the core text, which is to say, likely none and it cannot be sold through most channels.
As the world of custom grows, so do the players in the space. Flat World Knowledge has taken a big step in this world with the MIYO (make it yourself) model. In this model, the professor is given one of the core texts in the Flat World Knowledge catalog. From there, the professor can add custom notes, videos, and other features to make the book a unique and relevant edition. The student can then access the book for free online, pay for one of two online access subscriptions, or upgrade to a printed version. While these offer significant upfront savings, such books have no value at the end of the course.
The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!
The kings of the custom model are for-profit schools who realized early that if they worked directly with publishers, they could create a direct profit channel with 100% sell-through. It seems to me that we should be working to determine how to lower costs and provide a better product, not fighting change and forcing students to purchase books through a single channel and leaving students with a valueless product come end of term.
At this point there’s not much students can do. My advice: If you find that your book is a custom edition, try asking the professor if other books are acceptable for the course or just how much the custom edition differs from the main text. Try going to the bookstore and looking at the cover, title, and author, then do a search online. Or even try to find a student who took the exact same course with the same prof last term and go with a grassroots buy if the custom edition hasn’t changed. Any of this will require a bit more effort but the savings could be substantial.